I should begin by admitting I am a huge fan of Michael Ondaatje’s writing. The English Patient and Anil’s Ghosts are pellucid and revelatory and just great story telling. I like his poetry. He surprises—not with a sledgehammer but stealthily and with casual confidence, like a cat. The Cat’s Table has a substantial measure of stealth factor. It is a coming of age story, at once terrific yarn and intriguing mystery.
The narrator, most of the time, is an eleven-year-old boy setting out from Colombo by himself on a sea voyage to England to live with his mother. The story weaves some third-person observation with “Mynah’s” tales of the trio of terrible pre-adolescent boys set loose on the ship to create mild mayhem, learn about things that are none of their business, spy on a sinister prisoner in shackles, explore the ship with its First Class intrigues and lethal secrets deep in the hold.
Three boys “bursting all over the place like freed mercury” drive the tale every-which-way but always in the direction of growing up, haphazard and dangerous as the knowledge they acquire may be. Characters are brilliantly drawn and compelling. The events of the voyage capture a 1950s world like images from vintage postcards. Discoveries and self-discovery are fascinating adventures that begin on the journey and spool out over lifetimes.
People are not what they seem in this story. Life is a wild romp with a wicked comeuppance. Experience is free for the taking, at astronomical cost. The boys see what they are not meant to, trade rumors, half-truths and wholesale lies in stage whispers, memorize the shipboard schedules of a colorful cast and crew with deadly deceits to conceal, sneak into forbidden ports, become willing accomplices to serious crimes, commit second-hand murder and figure it all out years later when their twined lives have come unraveled and the hushed truths spill out.
The cat’s table is the far end of the dining hall on board—the table for the least impressive travelers who sit farthest from the prestigious captain’s table. In Ondaatje’s novel, the cat’s table is the seat of all worthy escapades and the scene of the liveliest transgressions. This is a world worth spending time in—a story that is suspenseful, seductive, surprising and spun in language at once gossamer and robust. The Cat’s Table belongs on a must-read list—and one day on a must-read-again list, too.
The Cat’s Table — Michael Ondaatje | Alfred A. Knopf 2011